Out on the Land, Out on the Ice

Spring arrived, and qamutik season began. The sea ice edge now looks sort of like a parking lot.

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Time is racing past, as time likes to do. Lately I’ve adopted a more production-oriented mindset: “Make now, edit later!” I’m creating new content far, far faster than I have time to edit or work with, but that’s okay. That’s the point of being here.

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Some of you may recall my mentioning a photographic workshop for young people. Ever since I got here, that has actually been happening! I have three dedicated students who I meet twice a week if the schedule works for everyone (which is rare, but we do what we can). We talk about pictures, then go out and make them. Here are a few from a memorable excursion, themed “Nature & Adventure Photography”.

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Photo workshop participant Ruben, near the summit of one of the mountains surrounding Arctic Bay. 

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Recently, there was the Fishing Derby, one of the main reasons I chose to visit Arctic Bay in May. Over the May Long Weekend, four lakes were chosen for an ice fishing competition. People went out camping in groups, visiting and socializing, and fishing as much as they could or wanted to. The person who caught the largest fish at each lake won a considerable sum of money, but for many people the social/community aspect was the big appeal.

So, we went – to Kuugarjuk, the furthest destination, some 9 hours away by snowmobile. This was the first significant trip I’d made riding on a qamutik (sled), and was surprised how pleasant it was to travel that way. The 9 hours were an adventure, hanging out with the kids on the back of the sled as the world passed quietly by. We traveled over the sea ice for the majority of the journey, then drove onto the land and followed a riverbed to the camp.

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Getting the qamutik ready in Arctic Bay. 

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View on the back of the qamutik. 

When we eventually arrived at camp, I was surprised to discover that I already knew almost everyone there! For three nights, we camped, fished, and visited with friends. While we didn’t have especially good luck actually catching the fish, that wasn’t the point, for us. I took, as you might expect, thousands of photographs, and had a generally amazing experience. The “real” photographs, reflections, and stories are going to take much longer for me to work through and edit, but here are some snapshots to start.

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Arriving in camp. 

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Our massive Arctic Oven tent, manufactured by Alaska Tent & Tarp! By my standards, this is a huge tent. “Living large,” Susan and Darcy teased me. 

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The inside of the tent – plenty of room for everyone to sleep, cook, eat, and hang out. 

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Camp, as viewed from a hilltop in the early morning. 

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My friend Mavis teaching her son Martin to jig for char. 

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Clara teaching her son Spencer to fish. 

After three and a half days, we drove back to Arctic Bay in a huge procession of skidoos and qamutiks, stopping at several different lakes along the way to visit people.

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Packing the qamutik. 

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A rest stop on the sea ice, where we celebrated Samson’s birthday with cake and tea, served off the back of the qamutik. 

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Nap time on the ride home to Arctic Bay. 

For me, the Fishing Derby was a huge adventure, and I spent the following week in town, working on photos, drawings, and writings based on the experience. I also began preparing to spend a few days at the school’s Spring Camp, which I just returned from last night – another adventure on the land, resulting in thousands of photographs and great stories that I look forward to sharing.

However – everything in its time. After all, I’m here to create, and if I appear to be somewhat absent from this blog or social media, it’s a sign that great and more important things are probably going on. School ends next week, and thus begins Spring Camping season, where people go out on the land for weeks at a time. We’ll see what happens next!

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Polar Dreaming, Polar Drawing

Late last night, we returned from a epic 4-day adventure to a place called Kuugarjuk for the annual Fishing Derby. The experience was amazing, eventful, and significantly photogenic. I took thousands of pictures, wrote pages and pages of journals, but the experience will take some time to settle in, to formulate. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here’s another drawing I made, based loosely off of a story my friend Sheba once told me, about falling asleep while polar bear hunting.

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Sheba’s Dream, ink on paper, 2018.

A quiet Saturday in Arctic Bay today. I made a new drawing, based off of Inuit legends surrounding the aurora borealis. Most stories I’ve heard across the Arctic say that the northern lights are spirits playing soccer with a walrus skull, but some – especially in Greenland – say that they are walrus spirits themselves, playing a ball game very much like soccer. There’s also a warning, given to children, never to whistle at the northern lights – as the spirits may come and collect your head for the game, instead.

Here’s a picture.

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No Whistling, Ink on Paper, 2018

Gratitude and the Polar Community

The other day, after a few hours of work, I got up from my desk and stepped outside. It was a beautiful spring day: snowmobiles drew lines across the sea ice far into the distance, meltwater streams trickled down the muddying roads, and somewhere, a glaucous gull cried out – an unexpected sound, suggesting the slow approach of open water, somewhere past the ice. School had finished for the day, and children in multicolored parkas played amongst the houses as far as the eye could see.

I lingered by the coastline, taking in the view. At that moment, a nearby door slammed open, and a young teenage girl burst onto the porch, screaming in delight. In a lace-set t-shirt and jeans, she sprinted down the stairs, shrieking all the while, and hurled herself at me in a hard, enthusiastic hug.

Moments like these – unexpected explosions of warmth and welcome – reinforce the feeling that coming back here was an excellent idea. Every time I leave the house, something good seems to happen, some positive encounter, new photograph, or idea.

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Taryn, 10, drives her friends on her parents’ snowmobile on the sea ice near Arctic Bay.

Every day, I am endlessly grateful for the many sponsors who helped make this trip, and this time, a reality. Since I launched the idea of Sea Ice Stories last November, over 30 people have contributed in the form of print sales, commissioned artwork, and direct donations. Nearly as valuable as the financial backing is the moral support – a polar community of sorts, spread far and wide across the world – that stands behind what I am doing now.

Now, with joy and gratitude, I’m pleased to announce that Quark Expeditions has also become a sponsor of Sea Ice Stories.

For the entirety of my professional life after university, I’ve proudly joined Quark as a photography guide on over 50 expeditions across the Arctic and Antarctica. From driving zodiacs amongst penguins and whales, to leading hikes across the Svalbard tundra, greeting the sunrise on a Greenlandic beach or landing in a helicopter at the North Pole, every voyage with Quark has brimmed with once-in-a-lifetime experiences ranging from extraordinary to profound.

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Leading a photography walk in Greenland – thanks Nix Souness for the photo.

I have Quark to thank for the privileged and adventurous lifestyle that I have been able to lead, and for seven seasons of life-changing wilderness experiences in the Polar Regions. Now, I can also thank them for supporting my personal development as a photographer and lecturer.

What is my vision, as a guide? I strive to help people understand the meaning and context of what we experience in the Polar Regions, to become better photographers, and to better understand the indigenous cultures of the inhabited Arctic. However, if I had to choose only one thing – my primary goal – I’d say that I hope to help people feel. I hope, ultimately, that people will come away irrevocably changed, with a new passion for these remote and beautiful regions that they may have never understood before.

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Mika and Jennifer, 2018.

So, a sincere thank you, to Quark and to all my other sponsors, for believing in me, and the power of photography to help the world better understand the beauty, richness and importance of the Arctic. And of course, thank you to the people of Arctic Bay, especially my friends and new housemates, for extending such warmth once again.

 

Alaska, November: Life in a Painting

What do you tell them, when they ask you? That when you go home, you live inside a painting? That when you approach, the endless peaks appear as if from a dream, their contours glowing into horizon, ridges like teeth, snowless valleys carving rivers into the earth? That every time you press your face, your lens, to the window, trying so hard to catch it? That feeling? 

Earlier this winter, I stopped through my hometown of Anchorage, Alaska, for a few weeks. I did a number of things while there – visited family, edited and launched some new bodies of work, fundraised for a new project (more on that later), skied, prepared for Antarctica, and visited my brother in Fairbanks.

It was there, in Fairbanks – at the Museum of the North, on the university’s campus – that I first laid eyes on an original painting by Rockwell Kent. I was drawn to it as if by magnetic force – the color, the richness, the way the canvas breathed forth the peculiarities of Arctic light that can only so fleetingly be glimpsed. He caught it – that uncatchable thing. I’d seen reprints of his work, read his books, even – but seeing the work in real life was another story.

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The painting made me think of a lot of things. The image itself struck me, of course, because of the parallels it drew to my own daily reality (aboard ships in the Polar Regions), but it struck me also because of the color, that luminous quality and color of light. That single painting made me feel, instantly and forevermore, deeply connected to a community of artists and thinkers, past and present, engaged in ideas of North and northernness. The community had always been there, of course, but it took the painting to wake up to it.

It was a turning point. Since then, the more I consider it, the more important that community feels, and it’s everywhere. No matter what you are passionate about, somewhere out there are people who feel the same, who are driven by the same forces. You are not alone.

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I’ll tell you this – as whimsical as Kent’s work may appear, it is in many ways astonishingly accurate. After seeing the painting, I saw it everywhere, in the mountains, the fjords, the sunrises.

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On the flight home from Fairbanks, descending over Anchorage at dusk, I was suddenly gripped. Shooting in the dark, through the thick layered plastic of a jet window at thousands of feet, I gasped yet again at the vastness of this wilderness I’d grown up with, the Chugach mountains extending as far as the eye could see. Anchorage, when it finally appeared, seemed so inconsequential – a handful of glitter in the deep.

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It was a beautiful November – not much snow, but properly cold, and by the time we returned from Fairbanks, the ocean had begun freezing in its myriad of formations. I’d just gotten a brand-new digital camera, and promptly took it to the sea ice to test it out.

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The frozen sea of Turnagain Arm, only a few minutes from my childhood home, had been a source of artistic inspiration for as long as I could remember, but that day on the ice was challenging. No snow had fallen on the surface, and the ice was both slippery and brittle. I moved slowly, cautiously, outwards from the shore, while the moon rose above.

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This was it: home. I’d been thinking a lot about sea ice, too, and our relationships to it. Here was a new camera, destined to tell these stories. Here was the first thing it saw. Here are the first pictures it took.

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While I couldn’t get as far as I would have liked, alone on that new, fragile ice, it was a beginning. A beginning of something new coming, something more connected. I hope to move forward with a greater receptivity, now, to connectivity – of the things, in these polar realms, that draw us here; that shape us, and ultimately unite us.

Making a Living, Making a Trip

For the fourth year in a row, alone on a hilltop facing the sea, I looked out over Ilulissat Icefjord in West Greenland. The tundra, browning and withered, was preparing itself for winter; the taste of snow alighted on the wind. Below, beyond, and in every cardinal direction, stretched an endless expanse of glacial ice, dense as land.

Ten minutes was all I got, this time, to listen the silence and to watch the ice. It was colder this year, the crowberry faded, the ponds frozen over, but the ice was still there, choking the fjord in an illusion of solidity and permanence. Clouds played and warped over the lunar world of spires, mountains and monuments, patterns of light dancing across it in slow-motion.

The sight moved me not for its magnitude (a startling awareness of human smallness, futile warmth), nor for the worlds I imagined within it (the depth of crevasses, the underwater ice labyrinth below). The view shook me because it was different every day. The ice was alive, unknowable, and constantly shifting. It was a world that humans could never know or traverse – and an overwhelming, visceral metaphor for the nature of life.

Every year, now, I had come, at the end of long seasons guiding in the Arctic, in what felt like a personal pilgrimage. In the moments before the Icefjord – the output of the fastest-moving glacier in the northern hemisphere – the full weight of the summer’s experiences could begin to sink in. My thoughts would return to the early summer, to the days of midnight sun, across frozen oceans and continents to where I stood now, at the cusp of winter.

This year I thought, first, about Svalbard, where we had begun, aboard the m/v Ocean Atlantic, our home for the season. (By we, I mean an expedition team working for Quark Expeditions – a tight-knit group of talented polar professionals who I already knew and already loved). Light and time had no relation to each other; daylight prevailed in every hour of every day. I learned to look harder. Use binoculars, better. Spend hours on the ship’s bridge, searching. Not that I ever spotted much – the competition was too great, other eyes better trained – but one day, I will.

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In the course of five expeditions to Svalbard this year, the island archipelago secured a firmer place in my heart. Nowhere else in the Arctic, by ship, have I had such incredible encounters with polar bears, walrus, reindeer. What’s more, as a guide, we visited familiar places again and again. The day arrived when I could wake up, look out my porthole, and know intuitively where we were. I grew confident leading hikes, navigating, carrying a firearm, interpreting in the tundra and on the sea. We had wildlife experiences that still linger in my dreams.

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We made five expeditions in Svalbard, back-to-back. Ice, tundra, glaciers, flowers, birds, bears, animals, light, sky, time. Again, again, again. I felt – and this is rare – that we could keep going, there, for a long time, following the season until it faded to fall. But there were more places to go, and the ship was headed west, and we, living aboard it, followed.

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In August, we sailed to Greenland. Crossed oceans, borders – to the places where I started, living this life, wide-eyed and new – and places that are still marked by that feeling of newness, of exploration, of discovery.

It can be difficult to convey why is it that Greenland, and the Canadian Arctic, exert such a hold on the imagination. Why these trips, more than any others we undertake, embody the idea of what I feel expedition should be.

Certainly, it is because the regions have been inhabited for nearly 5,000 years. Every thing one sees, experiences – tufts of cottongrass moving in the wind, a circle of stones, the movements of birds – everything is tied to human experience, full of meaning. I call traveling in these regions learning to see – reading into the subtleties in the land, the light, until the experiences become so powerful that you are lost for words.

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Our first expedition in Greenland and Canada was marked by incredible weather and warm air, fjord systems so overwhelming that one felt in danger of losing one’s sense of space. It was also marked, in the onset of autumn, by the return of sunrise and sunset, of watching days begin and end again. And so we ventured into uncharted waters, to land on unknown beaches at dawn, to witness sunrise.

These latter trips are also expedition, to me, because our travels are dictated by the place itself, rather than a set itinerary or pre-arranged schedule. The ice, the weather, the spirit of our companions, our teamwork, the ship, the season, and more than anything, the dreams – these are the things that shape the voyage. Plans are constantly in flux, changing as fast as the glaciers churn out their oceans of icebergs. By learning to live with this, by adopting a constant readiness to adapt and respond, you attain a presence of mind so rich that you feel no earthly event can ever shake you.

On these voyages, a reason to go somewhere might be a story you heard. An idea you had. A legend of an amazing place that spreads amongst the collective imagination of your group until you have to go, be the waters charted or not. It is an amazing feeling to arrive in a place of legend, like a myth coming to life, and find it to be real, whatever it is. Hundreds of whales. A Greenlandic music festival bustling in a remote fjord. A pair of polar bears on a jagged island in the middle of the sea.

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These experiences, every one of them, are irreplaceably unique journeys that will live on in our imaginations forever. But this is also how we, polar guides, make a living. I’ve been reflecting a lot on that phrase, making a living. What does this mean to each of us? There is more than the money one earns to literally survive. There are, also, the experiences that imbue your life with richness, purpose, and reverence. To have these things combined is something that fills me with endless gratitude.

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So it is that another Arctic season has drawn to a close – not without challenges, of course, but full of so much beauty and wonder that I scarcely know where to begin. If there was time enough for reflection I could write endless articles on the encounters we’ve just had, out there, on the sea. But this I know of life: like the ice, it is always changing, always moving, and so are we all.

The next months will be full of travel, full of change and stories, and I am running towards all of it. I hope there will be time for sharing. I hope to write things down.